The Internet as we know it is open, secure, and resilient. This is no mistake. It was designed and has evolved this way. Due to its open nature, the Internet has gained traction at a fantastic pace and transformed the world by fostering communication and innovation while generating tremendous economic growth. Roughly 2.5 billion people, more than one-third of the world’s population, currently use the Internet, and another 2.5 billion individuals are expected to go online by the end of this decade.
But the open Internet that people the world over rely on is under threat. Only concerted moves by the stakeholders can protect its valued openness.
The Internet, as it transforms, has become a victim of its own success. The various groups that rely on Internet services – governments, corporations, and individuals of all types and purposes – have different needs. Sometimes these needs overlap, and sometimes they are at odds. However, sovereign governments are increasingly seeking control of their own domestic spheres as well as the flow of data and information between countries and, in doing so, are attacking the openness that represents one of the foundations of the Internet.
Nation-states are increasingly attempting to regulate social, political, and economic activity and content in cyberspace and, in many cases, suppress expression they view as threatening. Justifying their actions by claiming to protect children or national security, more than 40 governments have erected restrictions of information, data, and knowledge flow on the Internet.
Censoring the Internet takes many forms, including censorship of opinions (Vietnam, Saudi Arabia); censorship of specific websites or ISPs (Australia, Pakistan, Russia); censorship of specific information (China, Germany); demanding information be taken down (France, Singapore); demanding users’ IP addresses (more than 50 countries); and erecting regulatory barriers to cross-border information flow (Brunei and Vietnam). More drastically, others including Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia have considered building national computer networks that would tightly control or even sever connections to the global Internet.
The ongoing controversy surrounding former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden makes for headline-grabbing news, but obscures these broader global challenges confronting the world’s Internet infrastructure.
The Internet facilitates communication, commerce, and trade and is an integral part of modern life. The global repercussions of censorship are severe. Regulations that constrict the flow of information not only create disparities among people’s access to knowledge, but also have a negative effect on the shape, architecture, safety, and resilience of the Internet.
In 2012, for example, two proposals in the US Congress to allow filtering of the Domain Name System, or DNS, which would enable the government to require US companies to block access to certain websites that were deemed a significant risk to cybersecurity.
Moreover, restrictive and discriminatory operating rules complicate trade and slow global national economic growth.The Internet economy accounted for 4.7 percent of US gross domestic product in 2010, or $68.2 billion, and is projected to rise to 5.4 percent of GDP in 2016. The United States captures more than 30 percent of global Internet revenues and more than 40 percent of net income. Filtering, blocking, and other limitations on data flow make it more difficult for companies of all sizes to reach customers, provide services, or share critical information globally.
There are many possible approaches the US could pursue to address this issue, but one of the most promising is mandating that all future trade agreements should include the goal of fostering the free flow of information and data across national borders while protecting intellectual property and developing an interoperable global regulatory framework for respecting the privacy rights of individuals. Trade agreements in the past have addressed the free flow of goods, piracy, and human rights. The trade agreements of the future should be no different, and some already address these issues.
For example, the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement calls on the two countries to “refrain from imposing or maintaining unnecessary barriers to electronic information flows across borders.” The US has trade agreements with most countries in the world, and these agreements provide an opportunity to promote our values.
To build on these recommendations and further promote US digital trade, the Council on Foreign Relations task force recommends the following:
- The Trans-Pacific Partnership, the upcoming US-European trade negotiations, and future bilateral agreements should guarantee the free flow of information across borders.
- The US, along with its trading partners, should create a digital due process for requests on content removal and user data that is consistent across nations. This could prevent countries like Singapore, which has announced that news websites that report on the country must be licensed and could be fined if they do not remove any story deemed objectionable by the government, from independently enacting due process for content-removal requests.
- The US and others should make the transfer of data between governments more transparent and efficient by improving the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, or MLAT system. The US already has more than 60 MLAT agreements in place.
- With its Japanese and European counterparts, the US trade representative should coordinate pressure on India and Brazil to lift procurement regulations, location requirements, and other nontariff barriers to trade.
- The US should protect intellectual property, while preserving the rights of users to access lawful content. The US Congress debated this issue during negotiations over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). The bills, stalled for now, will be reintroduced in the future in some form.
- The US should help create an environment in which the Internet economy flourishes. This is beneficial for the US and the entire world.
US companies and universities remain at the technological cutting edge, and the US continues to be an important role model. The US can exert a great deal of influence as a positive model, and US technology companies have already taken the lead. Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and other companies now issue transparency reports that detail the number of requests they receive from government law enforcement for data on users around the world.
Previous success in areas such as democracy promotion and human rights depended heavily on leadership by example. The US does not own the Internet, nor is it responsible for fixing or updating it. Indeed, no one nation can fix the Internet, now used by every nation on earth. However, the US can set high standards in hopes that the rest of the world will follow.
The open, global Internet is unlikely to continue to flourish without deliberate action to promote and defend it. Political, economic, and technological forces are seeking to splinter the Internet into something that looks more like national networks, with each government controlling its own domestic sphere as well as the flow of data and information among countries. A global Internet increasingly fragmented into national systems is not in the interest of the world or the US.
John Negroponte was the first director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush. He is also Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy and senior lecturer in international affairs at Yale University. He co-chaired, with Samuel J. Palmisano, the Council on Foreign Relations task force white paper “Defending an Open, Global, Secure, and Resilient Internet.”
© 2013 Yale Global/Global Viewpoint Network, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC, Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor